Commentary & Analysis

Humanizing the Approval Voting Movement

How Fargo made political history with cute kids, puppies, and robust debates about cheese curds and Freddie Mercury.

In early 2017, I was working as a human rights lobbyist witnessing first-hand the ineptitude of lawmakers forging serious decisions about our lives. Sitting on the chamber floors of the North Dakota statehouse watching in real-time how abruptly the law changes every single day was an eye-opener. Until I had seen in person the rapid pace in which laws are changed, I never thought much about the fluid nature of the law and how important it is that elected officials truly understand the largest swaths of constituents possible. 

At the time, I was also reeling from a recent political race. I realized the way candidates are chosen during primaries is not representative of the populace. Considering the vast majority of folks only vote in general elections, primaries operate more like a coronation of the establishment darlings rather than the nomination of a broadly supported candidate chosen by the people.

In my state of disillusionment, I came across some articles about a voting method called “ranked choice voting” (RCV) and how successful it was in Europe. Like most people, I’d spent my entire life believing that the “choose-one” (plurality) method was synonymous with the word “vote.”  When I found out that there was a better way, I was fully on board!

Shortly after,  I heard about a lecture happening in the city of Fargo on another voting method called “approval voting.” It piqued my interest so I made the 6 hour drive through snow and ice just to learn more.

Jed Limke gave the presentation that day. To be frank, I was so enthused about ranked choice that his one-hour approval voting presentation didn’t win me over. RCV seemed more custom and expressive of my opinion. The idea of assigning candidates a ranking preference rather than a simple “yea or nay” struck me as an obviously superior way to cast an accurate opinion.

Several months later I received an unexpected call from Jed. He’d heard I was a good organizer and asked if I would consider moving to Fargo to lead the approval voting campaign. I was flattered but politely told him I don’t really understand how approval voting was a better method than RCV. He was grateful for my honesty, told me that that is everyone’s first response to approval voting, but as a mathematician himself,  broke down the mechanics of the two tabulation methods and I learned that RCV doesn’t actually work at all the way one assumes it does

Once I understood approval voting was the superior, more expressive method, I hopped on the opportunity to move to Fargo and organize this campaign. Even if it wasn’t my city, I was motivated to ignite a wave of election reform across the country.

The first couple of months of trying to explain approval voting to the average citizen were pretty clunky. The concept is literally so simple that it confuses people. The first hump to get over was blowing people’s minds with the knowledge that multiple voting methods exist in the first place.

The second thing was conveying how approval voting was an improvement to a system they didn’t even realize was broken. The only people quick to understand alternative voting methods were either mathematicians or fellow political wonks.

The big question became “Mathematicians and political wonks aside, how can I capture the attention of 100,000 people to talk about an abstract voting method and keep their attention long enough to care?” Everyone has an opinion on things like abortion, gun rights, and marriage equality. But voting methods? Not so much.

In the beginning, we had a small but dedicated crew of volunteers who understood the need for election reform. We learned quickly that explaining the method wasn’t good enough, but visually showing people how it works really did the trick. Jed and his wife Erin started bringing a set of 10 black mason jars to every tabling event we did.

Five jars represented the choices in a plurality race and the other five jars represented the same set of choices using approval voting. A large bowl of pennies sat at the center of the table and people got to practice using both methods by adding a penny (their vote) to the jars. People hemmed and hawed over the excruciating choice of picking only ONE favorite fair food (cheese curds, mini donuts, and elephant ears oh my!) On the second set of jars, people were happy to add a penny to ALL of the foods they loved without limiting their choice to just one.

We used this same demo many times and Jed Limke produced this fun video on the “Penny Jar Demo” using the results of a vote for “Most Iconic Pop Star of All Time.”

Our fun interactive booths became so popular with people, we slowly but surely gained a larger and larger email list, and with it, even more volunteers. Many of them were families who brought their children along. There were young energized activists who brought their friends. We also had the allyship of influential political elders in the community. The volunteer base became a diverse coalition of people of every age and political orientation under the sun. 

The “Approval Voting Army” focused on having a good time, door knocking and phone banking as a group, flyering with friends, talking to hundreds and celebrating a hard day’s work with late-night burgers, pizza, and beers.

Through the duration of the campaign I literally took thousands of pictures of the work we were doing as well as the fun we were having. Those pictures were plastered all over social media and Jed gave me the extremely flattering nickname “NSAndrea.”

Our highly social, highly visible approach to campaigning paid off in spades. We took what was a dull concept to most people and turned it into a playful campaign that anybody could get behind. Our robust social media presence demonstrating what a grassroots human-centered movement this had become helped us land more earned media attention than we ever received via traditional routes such as press alerts and letters-to-the-editor (and not for lack of trying).

The Approval Voting Army had gained such prominent visibility in the community, it became an institution. 

One would assume that in a small city like Fargo, it’s a cakewalk to draw attention to your cause. What else is going on? Think again.

We were competing for political attention during the most contentious and expensive senatorial race in state history. Historically a red state, North Dakota had been deemed a key swing state that year. Unprecedented sums of super PAC money were flowing into North Dakota. With that money also came very polished organizers here to galvanize local volunteers. 

Early on in the campaign, I made an appointment with a local ad agency to get an estimate on producing a commercial and broadcasting on television. When I told the ad men how much money I had to work with (which in my experience was a handsome sum) they literally laughed in my face and said “Kevin Cramer and Heidi Heitkamp just dropped $50 million a piece on their TV spends alone, not to mention all of the down ticket races happening right now. We’re very sorry, but there’s no way you’re getting on TV.”

Given all the money being spent on political ads, paid organizers, and staff, I was shocked to find out that the size of our volunteer base actually exceeded the number of local volunteers working for the two major political parties at the time.

Our tiny little municipal initiative had superseded volunteer hours being spent on far more prominent and controversial races. Through this, I learned that people fundamentally understood it’s not just bad candidates who are the problem in politics, rather the method by which they are chosen.

People intrinsically KNOW that their opinions don’t count in an election. 

Our unrelenting human-centered approach filled with daily social activities led to the formation of lasting friendships, an ongoing coalition of community organizers, and above all, an overwhelming victory in Fargo. In a city that didn’t want to “guinea pig” our elections by being the first city in history to try something new, the initiative passed in all 21 districts coming in at an overall 64% margin.

Here’s to the power of friendship, community, and approval voting!